The Curious Curator
Every work of art has a past, present and future, we just have to do a little digging to find out what an artwork is trying to tell us. Join our curator of Asian art as she unravels a mystery and reveals the identity of the two Buddhas depicted in the ornate temple wall murals in the Chinese gallery.
This video is divided into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the bottom portion of the murals and Part 2 focuses on the top portion of the murals.
The Curious Curator with Dr. Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of Asian Art
Transcript of Part 2
Shifting our attention to the uppermost section of the murals, all the individual figures are identifiable and play specific roles within the group. For example,
The uppermost left corner of the left panel surrounded by yellow clouds reveals a military figure holding a golden stupa. His attire and the item he holds indicates he is Virupaksha (廣目天王; Guang Mu Tianwang) King of the West, one of four Heavenly Kings (Si Tian Wang 四天王) who guard the four directions of the compass, called dikpala in Sanskrit.
In the upper right corner of the left panel, surrounded by multi-colored clouds are two more directional guardians ). Holding a closed parasol or victory banner is Vaishravana (多聞天王/多闻天王 Duo Wen Tianwang), King of the North.
Although we cannot see the item the next Heavenly King holds, we know his identity must be that of Virudakha (增長天王/增长天王 Zēng Zhǎng Tiānwáng), King of the South because the fourth heavenly king is in the next panel.
In the upper left corner of the right panel playing his pipa lute is Dhrtarashta (持國天王/持国天王 Chi Guo Tianwang), King of East.
Holding a book and dressed in characteristic martial garb is a figure with a triple identity. Viewed through a Buddhist lens, he is the protector of Buddhist teaching (Dharmapala). Seen through a Taoist or Confucian lens, he is the God of Literature. Finally when understood in a Chinese historical context he is Guandi, God of War (忠義神武關聖大帝).
Returning to the upper left panel, pink clouds separate the stupa-holding guardian from the group below who also have multi-layered identities.
Holding a red coral branch is a beautiful goddess. She is both a wealth goddess (call nagini in Sanskrit) and Dien Mu 電母 Goddess of Lightning.
The bird-faced deity is not only a Garuda (大鵬金翅明王)—compliment to and potential controller of the naga and nagini wealth gods who flank him, but also Lei Gong 雷公, God of Thunder.
Holding a brown hu rank stick is a wealth god (called a naga in Sanskrit) and Yu Shi 雨师, God of Rain.
Brandishing a long staff is the re-haired God of Fire Zhu Rong 祝融. Blue clouds separate all these heavenly figures from the earth-bound individuals below them.
One of these earth-bound figures has a halo, and a shaven head and wears Buddhist monk’s robes. This is the youthful Maudgalyayana 目連, one of the two primary disciples of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.
The other wears a Chinese official’s cap and has pink robes adorned with flying cranes among clouds and here represents Taoism. Unlike Buddhism, which is a foreign import to China, Taoism began and developed in China and was (in small measure) exported to neighboring East Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Why a Taoist figure appears here in a Buddhist mural will be discussed shortly.
Both the Buddhist Monk and Taoist figures raise their hands in a gesture of reverence (namaskara-mudra) they face inwards towards the central Buddhas.
Shifting focus to the opposite side of the other panel:
In the upper right corner of the right panel is Skanda (韋馱天 Wéituó Tiān/韋馱菩薩, Wéituó Pusa) with his characteristic armor and single-pointed oversized vajra. He is a protector of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and is often accorded his own pavilion at one of the entry points in a larger Chinese Buddhist temple complex. He is surrounded by white and blue clouds while pink clouds separate him from the four individuals below.
A bushy dark-haired and bearded protector holding an axe gazes upon a pale-skinned individual to the right.
With a high crown, this pale-faced individual is a youthful or even feminine form of one of the Three Stars (sanxing, 三星). This star, called both Fu or Cai (Fu, 福/Cai, 財), represents prosperity and good fortune. These other two are stars also and are portrayed below.
The star Lu, 祿/Zi, 子 signifies high rank and high status and here is portrayed with a thin, long moustache and beard wearing a high crown, holding a hu rank stick. He stares out at the viewer.
Finally, the southern pole star Shou, 壽 embodies longevity and is rendered as an older man, having white hair with a long eyebrows, moustache and beard and with an extra-tall head. Here he wears a rainbow-colored robe and cowl.
Yellow clouds separate the three heavenly stars from the individuals below.
Hands folded in a gesture of reverence (namaskara-mudra) is shaven-headed Sariputra 舎利弗 or 舎利子, who is devoted disciple of the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni. He wears the grey patchwork robes of a Buddhist Monk.
Below the monk, is a Confucian scholar, wearing a black transparent horse-hair hat that signifies his status. Like the Taoist figure on the opposite panel, the positioning of both Taoist and Confucian figures suggests that both respectfully are listening to Buddha’s teachings. Their postures and appearance here implies Buddhism’s supremacy over these other two competing social/religious systems that are native to China.
Turning, for a moment, away from the smaller supporting cast of characters to view the largest dominant pair in the murals, let us examine the two seated Buddha in the top center of each panel.
Similar bejeweled parasols hover above each Buddha, a sign of their elevated spiritual status.
Golden and rainbow colored halos radiate from each Buddha. On the outer edge of each halo are descending dragons holding wish-granting jewels, that turn to face the Buddha. White, red, pink and yellow blossoming flowers, connected by floral scrolls, support these dragons. Together these may indicate the so-called dragon-flower trees specified in Buddhist texts that are said to shade a Buddha in paradise. Both Buddhas are seated in identical lotus or diamond postures (called Padma-asana or Vajra-asana in Sanskrit) but each are differentiated by their clothing and hand gestures.
The Buddha on the left panel wears a green-and-silver patchwork robe with floral patterns. His hands make the “turning-the-wheel-of-law” gesture (called the dharmachakra-mudra in Sanskrit) that indicates teaching Buddhism.
The Buddha on the right panel wears a red-and-green patchwork robe with golden floral patterns. His raised right hand makes a gesture of teaching while his lowered left hand makes a gesture of meditation. The identities of these two Buddhas will be revealed soon.
The Buddhas are similarly enthroned on hour-glass shaped bases where the front three facets of the throne face the viewer. The bright red color and scalloped trifoliate feet reflect cinnabar lacquered furniture popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The throne bases are nearly identical for each Buddha—differentiated only by the color of the lions within the central panels—the left example has a pink lion with blue mane, the right example has a blue lion with pink highlights. Flaming jewel and lotus features are also abundant and nearly identical for each throne.
These two enthroned Buddhas once flanked a third Buddha, now missing, from the center. We can discover the identity of the missing central Buddha—as well as the names of these two flanking Buddhas—from the attendants that remain in closest proximity to where the central Buddha once sat.
Along the right edge of the left panel, yellow clouds envelope the two-crowned celestial Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva are beings who have attained enlightenment but choose to remain in this world to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. The Bodhisattva on the left offers a platter full of flowers. Sadly, the Bodhisattva to the right on this same panel is only partly surviving. Along the left edge of the right panel, a blue cloud distinguishes another crowned Bodhisattva who holds a golden offering platter and faces the (now missing) central Buddha.
Pink clouds separate these remaining three celestials from the Lohan below.
Called Arhats in Sanskrit and Lohan 羅漢 in Chinese these individuals are the disciples of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Usually a group of sixteen or eighteen disciples would surround Shakyamuni Buddha. On the left panel, three remain visible. Having a green halo and wearing a red robe with shaved head, moustache and beard and wearing bracelets, this is the Arhat Pindola Bharadvaja 迦諾迦跋釐堕闍尊者.
Holding a khakkara monastic staff and begging bowl is the Arhat Nagasena 那伽犀那尊者. He wears a white-and-green patchwork monk’s robe and is pale skinned and has a dark green halo.
Having a transparent white halo and wearing a beautiful blue robe with gold hoop earrings is the Arhat Nakula 諾距羅尊者. His back is turned to the viewer as his head tilts up to look upon the missing Buddha.
On the left edge of the right panel three additional arhat remain. Shaven headed, with a long, thin beard and moustache and wearing a green robe and holding a ruyi scepter is pale-skinned Arhat Panthaka 半託迦尊者 surrounded by a green halo.
Holding a fly whisk, and having a bushy beard and moustache is the balding dark-skinned Arhat Angaja 因掲陀尊者. He wears a pink, white and green patchwork robe and has a pink halo.
Wearing a red robe adorned with a dragon flying among clouds and holding a book is Arhat Nandimitra. Shaven-headed and clean shaven he has a transparent halo.
Because we see these individuals are arhats we know they must have surrounded their primary teacher, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who is now absent. Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddha of the present age. This along with the other attendants along the outside edges, informs us that the Buddha at the center of the left panel is Dipankara 燃燈佛,the Buddha of previous eons. The Buddha in the center of the right panel is Maitreya 彌勒菩薩, the Buddha of the future. Originally intended as the trinity of the Buddhas of the past, present and future–Buddha Dipankara, Shakyamuni (missing) and Maitreya.
The mystery of the Buddhas is solved.